Manchester giants sound warning with second-half surge
Five draws on the opening weekend meant the English Premier League season got off to a largely inconclusive start, but wins for the two Manchester giants confirmed they are ready-made title contenders, not works in progress like weakened Arsenal and rebuilt Liverpool.
Already we can read into the results that United and City are capable of improvement this season because both won last weekend after being level at half-time. Last season, most of their wins came when grabbing a lead that put them ahead at half-time, while their conversion rate of half-time draws into full-time wins was poor.
City won just five matches when they weren't ahead at half-time and United were only marginally better with six- Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham all had better figures, as did several other Premier League teams.
Clearly it is a formidable asset to be able to set up a win by taking a half-time lead - as United and City did 33 times between them last season - but it is also important to be able to press on for victory when they aren't in front at the break.
United know that only too well, having turned 11 half-time draws into wins two seasons ago and 10 the season before. Last season, that figure slumped to just four, so to turn a 1-1 half-time scoreline at West Brom into a 2-1 win last week was a major positive.
Even more positive was that City boss Roberto Mancini twisted rather than stuck when it came to playing his cards against Swansea on Monday night. From 0-0 at half-time, City had just taken the lead when Mancini substituted holding midfielder Nigel de Jong and threw on new striker Sergio Aguero for the last half hour.
It was an unusual move by the characteristically cautious Mancini, but it paid off as Aguero scored two goals to cement a 4-0 win. Perhaps Mancini's negative approach held back City last season when it came to cranking up the pressure in the later stages of matches and it is possible that Monday's manner of victory could become their signature performance- holding tight at the back and giving their attackers the platform to secure victory in the final quarter of the game.
If City are allowed to flourish in that way by Mancini, they will be serious title contenders.
A problem that Mancini solved last season was City's points haul against bottom-half teams - they led the Premier League with an average of 2.45 points per game in that category. The win over relegation favourites Swansea almost certainly fell into that category and tomorrow's visit to Bolton might do too, despite the hosts' 4-0 victory at QPR last weekend.
Bolton's victory may not have proved much, with QPR likely to be among the strugglers, and the same goes for Wolves, the only other team to win last weekend, at uninspiring Blackburn.
If Bolton are little better than last season and are destined to finish in the bottom half again, City must have a good chance of another victory. Mancini's team won seven out of 10 away to bottom-half teams last season - again, that was a league-leading figure. City have won all three games against Bolton since Mancini took charge, including 2-0 at the Reebok on the final day of last season. A similar scoreline looks likely tomorrow.
United, meanwhile, are back in the comfort of home at Old Trafford on Monday night when they host Tottenham, who are starting behind the rest after last week's game against Everton was postponed. That puts Tottenham at an immediate disadvantage, which is hardly what they need considering their poor record against United.
Harry Redknapp has made Tottenham more competitive against the top teams, with the notable exception of United, who have won six and drawn three of their meetings since Redknapp took charge. The three draws were all goalless, which effectively means United win if they score. In the past three seasons, United have been shut out in just two of their 57 home league games and have won 50 of the 55 in which they have scored.
Not surprisingly, there are strong stats pointing towards United on the handicap, a win-win on the HaFu and over 2.5 goals. The handicap looks the best bet.
Two more of the 'big six' face off tonight when Arsenal host Liverpool in a clash that may give an indication of whether one or both of them are ready to make a concerted challenge for the title.
Their opening-day results suggested the same old problems remain, with Liverpool unable to press home their early advantage against Sunderland and Arsenal losing their way and their cool at Newcastle.
Arsenal haven't lost to Liverpool in more than three years and not in the Premier League for more than a decade, but their encounters are usually tight.
None has been decided by more than a single goal since Liverpool's last win and, remarkably, six of the last 11 meetings of the pair have finished 1-1. With a draw hard to rule out, Arsenal are the pick on the handicap.
The easiest task for one of the big six appears to be Chelsea's home game against West Brom, who have lost only one away game out of six under Roy Hodgson but normally concede plenty of goals.
As with United, Chelsea are near unstoppable at home unless they can be shut out and they should cover the handicap.
Stuttgart, Derby, Espanyol, Lorient, Manchester City, Manchester United
TOP 5 BETS
1 Stuttgart home win
Have continued their progress under Bruno Labbadia
2 Derby home win
Much improved while opponents Doncaster have stood still
3 Espanyol home win
Good odds to continue last season's strong home form
4 Lorient on handicap
Hosts Dijon already struggling to cope in top division
5 Man United on handicap
Match sharpness should give them a clear edge